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ABL Space Systems

From ablspacesystems.com/company/

Investing in the space industry has been one of the most profitable areas in recent years. Companies receive millions of dollars to develop technologies and sign contracts completing only a few projects or even planning to implement them. One such company is ABL Space Systems, which has not yet successfully launched a rocket but already has contracts for 75 flights over ten years.

ABL Space Systems is a small launch vehicle developer and operator headquartered in California. The company was founded in August 2017 by Dan Piemont and two SpaceX employees Harry O’Hanley and Darin Van Pelt. Since its inception, ABL’s management team has changed: Van Pelt left the company and was replaced by Matthew Becker, previously Head of Components at ABL. The company’s CEO remains its co-founder Harry O’Hanley, while Piemont holds the position of CFO and President.

Only in a few years, the company has received more than $230 million in investments. Lockheed Martin Ventures became the first investor in 2019, but the amount of the attracted capital was not disclosed. In 2020, ABL received $47.54 million from 40 companies, as well as a $0,5 million contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to develop a liquid propellant rocket engine with Invocon Inc. The current year has become more successful as the company conducted a Series B round in March 2021, receiving $170 million and an additional round in October, raising another $200 million.

The reason for the investors’ confidence is, probably, the benefits of ABL’s products. First, the RS1 two-stage rocket runs on liquid oxygen and kerosene and has an autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) used only by SpaceX and Rocket Lab. At the same time, it can deliver the largest payload (up to 1350 kg) to low earth orbit, and its launch costs only $12 million. The low cost is ensured by the lower fuel consumption of ABL’s E2 engines. In addition, the unique GS0 system allows launches from any 150′ by 50′ flat concrete site, reducing shipping costs and requiring a small crew.

Such features have already brought ABL several major contracts from government and commercial companies. The most significant is the agreement with Lockheed Martin, according to which ABL is to complete 26 launches by 2026 and 32 additional by 2029. Another contract ABL signed with Amazon, agreeing to put the customer terminal antenna KuiperSat-1 and Kuiper-Sat-2 into low Earth orbit (LEO) in late 2022. Additionally, NASA has selected ABL to launch the NASA Cryogenic Demonstration Mission spacecraft, which will test cryogenic fluid management technologies in orbit.

Nevertheless, the implementation of these projects is still in question because ABL has not yet launched its rocket and continues to miss the deadline. According to the announced plans, the first test launch of the promising RS1 was supposed to occur in the third quarter of 2020. The first commercial flight was scheduled for the end of 2020. However, ABL postponed the launch to early 2021 and then to the third quarter of 2021, planning to perform three flights in 2021. This idea seems unrealistic today as ABL promises that the first launch will happen in “the period that extends to December 15, 2021.”

According to Harry O’Hanley, the delays are caused by “external factors,” and the company’s primary goal is to scale production. The active pace of attracting investment and the team’s growth suggests that ABL is following this path. In June 2020, there were only 51 employees, but by the summer of 2021, the number of people had doubled. Undoubtedly, the expansion of capacity is a necessary step, given the number of planned launches and commitments for the coming years. Nonetheless, investors, clients, and the public expect ABL to act and deliver its promises.

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